Saying Goodbye to My Steenbeck

Filmmaker Ralph Arlyck recalls dimly-lit hours spent splicing 16mm film and watching a story come together on his Steenbeck.


Young Ralph Arlyck with his old friend, Steenbeck.
Young Ralph Arlyck with his old friend, Steenbeck.

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Editor's Note: This year's Mendocino Film Festival's annual Albert Maysles Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking Award has been given to Ralph Arlyck and his film Following Sean. The film will be screened in Mendocino, CA on June 2nd and at the Albert Maysles Cinema in Harlem, NY (at a fall date TBA) with Arlyck in attendance at both screenings.

When Arlyck and Mendocino Film Festival program director, Pat Ferrero, were reflecting on the decades of technological change encompassed in his film, Ferrero encouraged him to write it up. The result is a short essay that Ferrero says reflects Arlyck's "wry humor and the bittersweet experience of many of us veterans who weathered the changes." As an early AIVF board member Arlyck also weathered many organizational changes and has been an active supporter of our Archive Preservation Project. Congratulations, Ralph, and thanks. -ET

Technology rolls forward. No need to get in a twit about it. Or all misty about what’s falling away. But I wasn’t prepared for how badly I felt about the final days of my well-loved Steenbeck editing console.

My doc feature, Following Sean (a meditation on the 60s, built around a revisit with a precocious four-year-old I’d originally filmed in Haight Ashbury in 1969) spanned four decades in its theme, bridged two centuries in its fabrication, and lived the enormous shift of the field from 16mm to digital. I started shooting and cutting it on film in the mid-90s and screened it in theaters in the mid-oughts.

In the early years I edited double-system film and mag in the basement of our Poughkeepsie house. My wife, Elisabeth, always wondered how I could stand to work in the cellar but I was happy down there. As a little boy I’d spent hours watching my grandfather make cigars in his cellar in Brooklyn.

In the Poughkeepsie cellar there wasn’t too much light coming in from the narrow, ground level windows (the sort you’d find in a minimum security prison). There were film bins, brightly colored plastic cores, the satisfying snap of the Rivas tape splicer, the smell of a film cleaner containing (undoubtedly very bad) chemicals and, squatting in the center of the room, that German engineering marvel, an eight-plate Steenbeck, with its brushed nickel and blue finish, wide whirling aluminum plates, and slide-out circuit boards.

I loved making edits on it and then reconsidering them as I reversed huge film rolls on the small left-hand re-wind spindle, pressing the foot pedal and guiding the re-spooling acetate with my fingers like a potter at his wheel. Legend had it that the most common problems for the new Avid editors were urinary ailments—no time between cuts to take a piss break.

But by the end of the century, my way of working was becoming untenable. I was joined by Malcolm Pullinger, a young filmmaker with an innate editing sense and digital skills. We dumped the existing three-hour film cut into Final Cut Pro and moved editing to a desktop. The red Steenbeck power switch was flipped off permanently.

Now Elisabeth and I have moved north to a more rural, smaller place. Its basement is finished and has lots of light. You see mountains and moving water outside but there’s no room for an eight-plate in this house.

Steenbecks used to retail new between $30,000 and $40,000. There’s even less of a current commercial market for 16mm editing machines than there is for most independent documentaries. Nobody wants them. I took a photo of it and put it on Craig’s List for a selling price of $5. Silence. I tried donating it to local colleges—Bard and Vassar—but, despite their resolve to keep a bit of 16mm film in the curriculum, they each had a surplus of Steenbeck and Moviola mastodons to unload themselves.

So, no choice. I googled scrap metal dealers and found one who agreed to take it for seven cents a pound minus a small pick-up labor charge. This seemed like the best deal I was going to get. An eight-plate is a big 500-700-pound mother so this was going to net me a $25-$30 consolation prize.

With phone guidance from Paul Tomasko, the one remaining Steenbeck repair genius I know, I broke the machine into three separate pieces. The next late afternoon, two wiry scrap metal guys came and grunted and twisted the sections up my cellar steps, into a truck and away to I-don’t-care-to-know where.

Two weeks later an envelope arrived in the mail with the following accounting:

Weight (minus wood & glass) 440 pounds @ .07 per pound = $30.80
Labor (two men & truck) $30.00
Net Total 80 cents

A check for 80 cents was enclosed. I haven’t cashed it yet. I’m planning to frame it. That’s going to cost me $27.50.


steenbeck memories

I'll miss that old juggernaut almost as much as you will - I have a lot of cherished memories of you showing me how to cut and splice film sitting at that console.

And of course, of squinting my eyes and pretending it was the console of the Millenium Falcon.